For the first time in a young career filled with both success and heartbreak, Simona Halep is a Grand Slam champion.
The 26-year-old world No. 1 defeated American Sloane Stephens in a wild French Open final on Saturday to claim that elusive first major title at the fourth attempt. Moments after the match-winning point, she covered her face with her hands in a combination of disbelief and relief.
“I was dreaming of this moment since I started to play tennis,” she told the crowd minutes later.
The Romanian trailed one set to love and 2-0 in the second set, but roared back in the second and dominated the third to triumph, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1.
From the beginning of the match, the 10th-ranked Stephens was clearly superior on her serve, and offered resistance on Halep’s. A few unforced errors kept her away from break opportunities. But she got her only one of the first set in the fourth game, and took advantage to go up 3-1.
At 5-3, Halep had an opportunity of her own to return the favor. But an unforced error spoiled her one and only break point. Stephens went on to win three straight points, the game and the set.
Stephens appeared to be in control after opening the second set with a break, and with a hold on her own serve to go up 2-0. Then the tide turned.
Halep won four consecutive games to put the match right back in the balance. She rebounded with a four-point break to level the second set at 2-2, then stayed in the ascendance with another break to take a 4-2 lead. The crowd roared her on, chanting “SI-MO-NA! SI-MO-NA!”
Out of nowhere, though, Stephens responded with a four-point break of her own to get back to 4-3, and eventually 4-4.
But Halep had re-found herself. She persevered through a battle to hold serve and go up 5-4. There was a sense that if Stephens was going to win, she had to do so in two sets. But at 15-15 in the subsequent game, she missed a golden opportunity for a winner down the line. Then at 30-30, Halep won two consecutive points to claim the second set.
As feared toward the end of the second set, Halep had asserted herself. She was now decidedly superior. She won the first three games of the third set, capitalizing on a few unforced errors from Stephens to win a break. The American had lost a touch of both power and focus. After one error, exasperated, she slapped her thigh in frustration.
Halep then all but clinched the match by winning a few insane rallies and breaking Stephens again to go up 4-0. She capped off the fourth game with a wonderful winner at the net.
— Ashish TV (@Ashish__TV) June 9, 2018
And that final rally of the fourth game seemed to deflate Stephens. Halep rolled to a 6-1 third-set victory, and to the title.
Sloane Stephens’ meteoric rise
At this time last year, Stephens wasn’t even ranked in the WTA top 100. She was on a long road back from foot surgery. In her first major tournament back, she would lose in the first round at Wimbledon.
But she climbed back into the top 100 with strong performances at lesser tournaments, then broke out at the U.S. Open. When she beat Julia Goerges to advance to the quarters, it was her first quarterfinal appearance at a major tournament since 2013 Wimbledon. A few days later, she secured her first major semifinal appearance since the Australian Open at the beginning of 2013. Her semifinal victory over Venus Williams gave her a first career Grand Slam final.
And when she defeated fellow American Madison Keys, she became the lowest-ranked woman to ever win a U.S. Open title.
And until Saturday, her dominance in France had cemented her among the sport’s best, just a year after she was sitting on the sidelines. But in the end, she couldn’t quite overcome Halep’s excellence.
Simona Halep’s French Open redemption
Almost exactly 12 months ago, Simona Halep was on the brink of her first major title. Same site, same tournament. She led unseeded Jelena Ostapenko one set to love, and 3-0 in the second set, three games away from her breakthrough. Then she collapsed.
She lost that second set 6-4, then the third 6-3. She fell in three sets, just as she had to Maria Sharapova in the French Open final three years earlier, and just as she would in the 2018 Australian Open final to Caroline Wozniacki.
Saturday’s major final was the fourth of her career – the third as the higher seed, and the third at Roland Garros. And down a set and two games, she appeared to be on course for more disappointment.
But with that disappointment staring her in the face, she responded as only the sport’s best can, and finally claimed her first major title.
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